By Richard Duckett TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF
Who was Ira Aldridge? Or Matthew Henson? Or Roy Allen? Tina E. Gaffney has stories to tell on the Audio Journal program “The African American Experience.” They are not perhaps the stories you are accustomed to hearing during times such as Black History Month, Ms. Gaffney noted. “Every February it’s the same five people.”
Namely: The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Marcus Garvey and Harriet Tubman. Nothing, of course, against them — they are historical/sociological/political/literary giants. “But we need to go beyond that,” said Ms. Gaffney of Worcester, a popular local actor (credits including the former Worcester Foothills Theatre Company) and educator who is artistic director of Stage Presence Productions.
“What about the Shakespearean actor (Aldridge) who was African-American? Authors, astronauts, explorers (Henson), inventors, sculptors? There are people that we never hear about,” Ms. Gaffney said.
She made that point to Vincent Lombardi, director of the Worcester-based Audio Journal, a radio reading service for individuals who are blind or otherwise challenged that broadcasts via outlets including 25 cable access stations (Channel 12 in Worcester). Lombardi agreed with her, and so telling listeners about these unsung heroes has become an important part of “The African American Experience” that Ms. Gaffney hosts and co-produces.
During the one-hour program broadcast at 8 p.m. the fourth Saturday of every month (and also airing other times and available at www.audiojournal.org). Ms. Gaffney also interviews guests — a recent visitor at the 799 West Boylston St. studio was cultural project director Gloria Hall — and her shows have included commentary, music and poetry.
The feedback has been good. “She’s a dynamic person,” Mr. Lombardi said of Ms. Gaffney. “Beautiful diction. She’s just wonderful on the air.”
“The African American Experience” also has a couple of interesting stories to tell about itself and the person who inspired it.
Mr. Lombardi said that Roy Allen was one of the first prominent black television producers and directors in the country. He worked 30 years for CBS-TV, then after he retired in 1989, he moved to Clinton with his wife, Margaret, and volunteered at the Audio Journal.
“He said we should develop a program about being African-American in the community,” Mr. Lombardi said. Mr. Allen died in 1994, but when “The African American Experience” was launched in 1996, Margaret “Peg” Allen got involved with the program. Through her connections, the show obtained interviews with prominent figures such as actor Morgan Freeman. “It was outstanding for us, this little radio studio, to cover these things,” Mr. Lombardi said. Over the years “a lot of people have really chipped in from the community to make it important. Tina’s taken up the banner.”
“Roy Allen blazed the trail for people of color,” Ms. Gaffney said. “There needed to be a program in his honor. Positive images of people of color — there’s never enough of that. That’s what he was about.”
Ms. Gaffney said she considers herself an educator. “I like to entertain people and educate how these people did this way back when.”
Some of the stories were told to her in her family when she was a girl. Many others she researched herself, finding personal inspiration in them.
One recent segment on “The African American Experience” was about Ira Aldridge, who was born in New York in 1807 and is the only actor of African-American descent among those honored with bronze plaques at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon in England.
It has been written that Aldridge did well as an actor in England because he was able to get away from America. On the other hand, Ms. Gaffney said that among the English theater establishment there was an attitude of “How dare you come to England?”
There was even a suggestion that “his lips could not form the words properly.”
Nevertheless he portrayed not only Othello but Hamlet and King Lear. “The audiences took to him before the critics did,” Ms. Gaffney said.
Mr. Lombardi said that hearing about Aldridge was “a whole new education to me. That’s part of the fun of the whole thing.”
Asked if there is something that people featured in “The African American Experience” share, Ms. Gaffney said “Every single one of them had fire in their belly. They did not ever give up. The thing I like to tell people is, ‘You’ve got to roll up your sleeves and be about it.’ They all have that perseverance to defy the odds.”
Those odds have certainly included overcoming prejudice. “Oh yes, that’s one of the reasons it’s more important that they did what they did,” Ms. Gaffney said.
Matthew Henson was an explorer and the first person, in 1909, to reach the North Terrestrial Pole — though not without controversy. Ms. Gaffney said he had singular vision. “He said, ‘I’m doing it, that’s the end of it.’
“Lots of times when I listen to some of these stories it is amazing to me. They were constantly being told they’re not going to amount to anything in this generation.”
Who knew otherwise? They did.
“Nobody told me that. You have to start looking,” Ms. Gaffney said. “And look what I found.”
Contact Richard Duckett by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.